Of February Fecund…

Of Candlemas, Creatures and the Cailleach…

If you can think yourself small enough, we can probably just wriggle out through the pantry window…

We’re not going far, I promise you – just to the turn of the top garden… and happily, after a morning of sunshine it looks like rain…

I feel I ought to explain…

Today, you see, is Candlemas – so named because it was the day on which candles to be used in the coming year were blessed within churches. It’s also celebrated as the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary and as a day traditionally linked with weather prognostication – with adage after adage proclaiming that a fair Candlemas bodes badly for the growing season to come…


‘If Candlemas Day be dry and fair

The half o’ the winter’s to come and mair

If Candlemas Day be wet and foul

The half o the winter’s gane at Yule

‘Thig an nathair as an toll
La donn Bride,
Ged robh tri traighean dh’an t-sneachd
Air leachd an lair’

(The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bride,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground)

‘The hind had as lief see
His wife on the bier
As that Candlemas Day
Should be pleasant and clear’

You get the gist, I’m sure.

Marking the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, whether it’s bears, badgers, wolves, snakes or groundhogs wriggling from their holes on Candlemas day, it is generally considered an ill-omen if the weather is fair or if shadows can be seen.

Scotland sniffs the air for portents earlier, for north of the border it was yesterday – on the 1st February – that the Cailleach Bheur is said to gather the firewood she’ll use during the rest of the winter. The more wood she knows she will need, the finer she will ensure the weather is, whereas a wet day promises that winter will soon be over.

In Manx folklore meanwhile, the Caillagh ny Groamagh (‘old woman of the gloom’ – for the dark shadows she inhabits – not her mental health…) can be seen in the form of a crow on February 1st, carrying twigs for her fire in her beak.


The word ‘Cailleach’ – ‘old woman’ originates from the Irish ‘caillech’ or ‘veiled one’, but whereas the Scottish Cailleach Bheur is a fearsome hag, single eyed, blue in the face with attitude and very closely linked to winter, the Irish Cailleacha (plural) are less ‘seasonal’ and variously portrayed as mother, sorceress or wise woman – sometimes with more than one head and sometimes with two sides to one face – one beautiful, one terrible.

Common, however, are tales where the crone turns into maiden, or holds the maiden captive, or fights with the maiden – or just shares nicely – as in the tradition that the Cailleach rules the countryside from October’s Samhain on, then, come spring, (and the date of this varies from region to region) throws her staff down under her sacred gorse bush and passes power over to Bride (Brighde, Briged, Brigit or Ffraed) – also associated with this day throughout the Celtic world.


Of Brigit, Brigit and Brigit…

For February 1st is ‘Lá Fhéile Bride’, ‘Gwyl Ffraed’ or ‘Latha Fhèill Brighde’, depending on which of the fringes of Celtic-ness you inhabit. It is in Ireland that she seems to have left the deepest mark though, for St Brigit – superimposed by the church on the eponymous pre-christian goddess of the Tuatha dé Danann – is second only to St Patrick in the nation’s hearts.

The original Brigit was a daughter of the Dagda, sometimes personified singly and sometimes in triplicacy with two sisters, also both called Brigit… Brigit the poet, Brigit the metalworker and Brigit the healer… The Dagda didn’t have a big book of baby names then…

Seers, weavers, dyers, singers and spinners turned to Brigit too… although a tradition long prevailed in Ireland that no wheel – even on a cart – should turn on her day.

She was associated both with agrarian and human fertility, several of the numerous holy wells later associated with her being said to have the power to cure impotence or barrenness and was additionally the protector of women in childbirth and cattle.


Many neo pagan sources also cite her as a fire goddess, although Miranda Green – herself a bit of a goddess in the world of Celtic studies – cautions against the danger of ‘creating a picture of her pagan role from information we have of Brigit as a saint’; although St Brigit doubtlessly had a special association with fire, there is little evidence that pre-canonisation Brigit was especially associated with it.

And just as nuns guarded St Brigit’s perpetual fire at Kildare from the view of men for centuries, so it was girls and women who were mainly associated with the celebration of her day. The most widespread ritual involved them in the making of a Brigit ‘doll’ or the ‘Brideog’ – variously out of rushes or straw, or by wrapping a churn dasher (used in butter making) in cloth – or even by sticking a turnip on a stick and swaddling that.

The Bride figure would then be taken from house to house by girls and young women in return for small gifts – often as simple as bread and butter, or a shell or a pebble. Later they would take the figure of Bride or Brigit to a house where they would shut themselves in and await the young men of the community, who were forced to knock on the door and ask permission before they were allowed to enter and pay their respects to Bride – and her bridesmaids…

Feasting, of course, followed – often involving ‘pounded’ potatoes with a well of freshly-made butter melting in the middle – before further revelry ensued. It would, though, all be utterly innocent, because each girl there would be protected by a piece of the ‘Briat Bride’…. Bride’s shawl, mantle or cloth – or, in Wales, apron.

For tradition had it that Bride walked the land after dark on the eve of her special day. A piece of unlaundered cloth would be hung on a tree or bush outside as dusk was falling for her to touch and bless as she passed by. Later – transformed by touch into the Briat Bride – it was torn up and distributed amongst the females of the family and even sewn into clothes, both for good luck and to protect virginity.

Another tale tells how an old woman, proud possessor of a shawl that had been blessed by Bride fourteen years running, cured a sick cow simply by draping it around its shoulders. Others allude to the tradition of leaving scraps of fabric and ribbons at healing wells as paying homage (or femage?) to Bride and believed that healing powers could be carried by those ribbons if later exchanged for a pin or a coin.

Generally though, anything begun on the day of Brigit or Bride – and particularly activities associated with husbandry of the land or animals – was thought to be guaranteed success, fruitfulness or fertility.


 Of other Rites of Spring…

Other traditions associated with early February fan the embers of the old Imbolc or Óimelc  (literally ‘in the bag/ belly’ or ‘ewe milk’) from which the flames of Candlemas may have been kindled…

Hazlitt, in his 1904 edition of the ‘Dictionary of Faiths and Folklore’ records that at the turn of the 19th Century a ‘gift of peats’ used to be taken to Scottish schoolmasters by their pupils on Candlemas day – a ‘duty known as the Candlemas Bleeze, (i.e., blaze). In Wales it was the day on which a candle – given to the head maid at Samhain for use in the outhouses  – had to be returned to the mistress of the house.

Trevelyan meanwhile, in her 1909 ‘Folk-Lore and Folk-Stories of Wales’ records the custom of placing two candles some distance apart on a bench. Each member of the household would then sit between them whilst drinking from a ‘horn beaker’ before throwing the drinking vessel over his or her shoulder. If it fell upright, the person would live to reach old age. If it landed the other way, the person would die early in life… The toast, presumably, then, was ‘iechyd da’, rather than ‘bottoms up’…


But what a glut of females and festivals these first two days of February enfold! I’d like to propose then that in the interests of simplicity, the first and second of this month be run into one and renamed the ‘Fecund’, for that, for me, sums up the days’ and zeit’s geist.

For what was actually being celebrated and sought of course is the promise of spring, fertility and plenty after the barren cold of winter. Around this time of year ewes start to lactate, lambs are born, fresh butter and cheese can be made again and hens turn broody… there’s a degree of warmth in the sun at last and it’s time to plough or even sow in warmer climes.

Today, with 24/7 Tesco and 365/12 mange tout available, it’s hard to appreciate the anticipation our forebears must have experienced; it’s not easy to imagine wandering into Starbucks only to be told that you cant have a Latté until the first ewe of spring has let her milk down, or that blueberry cheesecake is off until August.

Nor is it obvious at first how utterly vital the capricious early summer weather was to impoverished agrarian communities – ironically ‘talking about the weather’ has become synonymous with having nothing of interest to chat about.

Those of us who garden for pleasure do though, I think, retain a little link with that past. We appreciate that seeds will fail to germinate if the ground isn’t warm, or that young plants can be culled overnight by an unexpectedly late frost. We’re aware that annual crops never really recover from prolonged cold and wet in their early weeks… and yet to achieve maximum growth have to be planted early enough.

We, though, can at least start things off under glass, swaddle things in horticultural fleece and pop into Woolworths to pick up another packet of seeds if the first lot fail. And if those fail too, we can buy a packet of frozen peas or a bag of carrots for almost next to nothing…

So why do we still do it? What is it about growing things that brings us such pleasure? Well, the taste and the ‘knowing where it’s come from’ element of course… the sheer magic of forking up golden new potatoes from dark crumbly earth, or the gratification of popping a pod filled with sweetness… but for me there’s something deeper about it too – something about the meditative rhythms of planting, tending and harvest which imparts a peacefulness to my often chaotic life and helps me to balance hope with acceptance, both in the garden and further afield. 

Ultimately though I think it’s the sense of turning with the seasons which resonates deepest with me. Come autumn, I’ll be content to bring in the last of the Michaelmas apples and wrap them and myself up for hibernation; I’m more the Cailleach than the Bride and need my winter fire. Now though, in these precious earliest days of promise, the quickening of the year surrounds me, bringing energy, optimism and anticipation again. The birds have spring in their step, the first camellias are shaking out their blowsy pink petticoats…

And look! There!  Hellebores


Of the dark sisters

Oh, I know they don’t appear much at first, but bend down and cradle their cupped heads up with your fingers… or, better still, lie down among them and stare up at the sun through their glaucous stained glass…

In fact for anything to be blooming feels miraculous in itself this year. As the feast of purification dawns, I find myself surrounded instead by putrefaction, the legacy of the constant post-Christmas pour. As rain on a parched plot refreshes and feeds, rain on waterlogged soil mud-splatters and starves, almost – but not quite – drowning out the wails of the gardener.

I want to get into that earth – I need to get into that earth; to free succulent shoots from the slug-hugging detritus of yesteryear, to divide, to stoop, to conquer the perennial weeds before they get a hold – yet the heavens have continued to spit and the soil sulks at me, welling pools of tears if I so much as venture a toe-step.

‘Think of my structure!’ it pleads, preciously. ‘Think of my sanity!’ I hiss back, furrowing another frown line into my own.

I should of course consider the hellebores of the swamp and learn patience and fortitude in adversity from them. They, after all, first stretched their sepals here in the second week of January and have bloomed serenely since. In fact if you listen carefully, you can almost here them whispering, stoically, ‘well at least it’s not cold…’ to each other.

In less temperate climes though they will stay abed a little longer, their common name of ‘Lenten Rose’ relating to their usual flowering period and marking them apart from their close but fussier relative, the Christmas Rose. I prefer the Lenten ladies, both for their variety and their greater tolerance of my ‘stick it in and hope’ school of gardening.


Don’t be taken in though – they’re by no means all sweetness and light. The name ‘hellebore’ comes from the Greek eleiri – to injure and hora – food  – and along with hemlock, aconite and nightshade, hellebore was considered one of the four ‘classic poisons’.

Of poison, purging and Proetus

Attalus III – the last ruler of the Pergamum kingdom, who died of sunstroke in 133 BC (that’s not Pergamum in Wales then…) – is recorded by Plutarch as having grown hellebore, henbane, aconite and doryknion in the royal gardens. He preferred, we are told, pursuits horticultural to the affairs of state and was fascinated by the actions of poisons, being particularly fond of hellebore because it ‘racked the nerves and caused the victim to swell’… How different, how very different to the home life of our own dear Prince of Wales…

Gerard though makes reference to its more positive attributes, the plant being associated with both purification of the body and mind through its violent purgative action; ‘A purgation of hellebore’, he wrote, ‘is good for mad and furious men, for melancholy, dull and heavie persons…’ And if they weren’t furious before, given the nature of its curative action, they soon would be. It was also used as an abortificant, for summoning demons and was a traditional ingredient in many witches’ cauldrons. 

Its positive action on the mental state is also recorded in the tale of Theodorus purging Gargantua with hellebore so as to ‘cleanse from his mind all perverse habits’ and in the tale of Melampus and the women of Argos…

Now you can understand why being a woman of modern day Argos might be enough to send you a little daft… all those cardboard boxes to sort out… all those 16 day money-back-guarantees to process – not to mention the male customers salivating – at best – over the catalogues, immortalised by  Bill Bailey as ‘the laminated book of dreams…’

Ancient Argos however was a cheerful enough place, Argives wandering the fertile plain of Argolis free of sawn-off biros, unburdened by waiting times and innocent of pick up points… until, one day, that is…

Now some say it was during the rule of Proetus, and others that Anaxagoras was king at the time. Others still will look at you and say ‘yes dear… that’s very interesting… but wasn’t Proetus in Thomas the Tank Engine?’ Well yes he was, with his magic lantern… but more of that another time… All we really need to agree upon now is that at a time when Argos had a king, madness struck the women…


Those of an Anaxagoran bent say that all the women of Argos were ‘seized with madness’ and roamed the countryside in a frantic state…

Students of the Proetan school however say it started with the king’s three daughters, when they 1) failed to be sufficiently in awe of Dionysus, 2) suggested they might be prettier than Hera or 3) stole gold from her temple. Whichever, one of the gods was mightily miffed and set a madness upon them that made them believe themselves to be cows.

The stories begin to converge with the entrance of Melampus – a healer and seer of renown who was able to understand the conversation of animals, thanks to snakes licking out his ears… but that’s another fork to the tale….

Melampus either a) agreed to effect a cure for Anaxagoras’ subjects in return for a third of the kingdom, or, b) after King Proetus turned his initial offer down, gained a further third of the kingdom for his brother when the mad cow disease spread to the other women of Argos. They started, so it is said, to devour the children they had nursed the previous day… So he sent the young men of Argos out to round up the women, whom he then cured by purging them with hellebore… 

It’s recorded that one of the king’s daughters died during the round-up, but it seems just as likely that the hellebore might have carried her off… ‘No… your majesty, it was during the chase… one of the horses told me… honestly…‘ whispered Melampus. I’m sure myself that the ending might have been gentler if they’d sent for the old Irish woman with her shawl blessed by Bride…

Anyway, three surviving texts are attributed to Melampus; one on astrology, one on divination using twitches and one on divination using moles. That’s moles of the skin blemish variety, by the way, for in spite of his Dr Doolittle tendencies, turning to creatures renowned for their blindness for help with seeing is hardly the way of the visionary…

I did check for myself though and, in so doing, came across a lovely snippet of translation from his Peri Elaion Tou Somatos; ‘If (the mole is…) on the penis, while the man will be a bearer of male children, the woman will be the opposite.’ Um… Suggestions on a moleskin notebook please…

Of Hekate, Trivia and shape-shifting…

Meanwhile, back at the dusky hellebores’ darker roots, they were also considered sacred to Hekate, goddess of wild places, the underworld and ghost kingdom.


Tracing from Thrace (as, incidentally, do hellebores…) the earliest portrayals of Hekate were of a mother goddess and protector of entrances. By the 5th Century BC however, she began to be depicted as a three headed figure, or as three women standing back to back. One up on two-faced old Janus then…

Like Janus, (see my last blog…) she too was a deity of liminal places, but whilst he hung around porches and portals, Hekate strode out into the night, carrying a flaming torch and offering protection to those – and particularly to women – who travelled by darkness. Associated with graveyards, wild places and unlit pathways, some portray her as a lunar goddess, but it was at the dark of the moon that offerings of food were traditionally left out for her, either at doorways, or where three roads met. At such fork-roads, poles were also erected in her honour – and from them hung three masks, one gazing in each direction.

She walked some of the way with Janus then, but some of it hand in hand with Trivia, a roman goddess also associated – as her name implies – with the meeting point of three roads or ways. But why tri-ways and not crossroads?

Well, I suppose it’s possible at a crossroads for a traveller to ‘just keep going’. A fork in the road though demands a choice… so invoking Hekate or Trivia could be seen as the latter day equivalent of turning your sat nav on…’HekateHekate Come…’ as opposed to TomTom Go…

For Trivia though it was easy come, easy go… The Romans were blessed with a fairly boring, two dimensional pantheon of their own, largely devoid of human emotion and lacking the myths associated with other cultures. As they increasingly made contact with the outside world, they would, then, add, rename or morph deities and somewhere along the road, poor Trivia got lost.


Her name stays with us though, even if the etymology of modern ‘trivia’ becomes far less tortuous if you travel via the Latin ‘triviālis’ – or ‘of the street corner, commonplace or vulgar’ and its eventual metamorphosis into ‘trivial’ which first appears in English in the 1500s.

It is, though, pre-dated by the ‘trivium’ studied by scholars of the ‘artes liberales’ at mediaeval universities, where the ‘trivium’ – ‘three ways’ – of grammar, rhetoric and logic would have to be mastered before a student was allowed to move on to the more important ‘quadrivium’ of geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy.

Hekate, meanwhile, went from strength to strength – acquiring new spheres of efficacy in Greece and becoming the Hecate of Roman tradition – as well as the ‘more mature’ element of the maiden – mother – crone triple goddess along with Persephone and Demeter. I rather like her though as protector of those treading darker paths- ‘take my hand’, says Hekate… Ah yes, but which one? And where is it?

Anyway, back at the helleborus patch (quite unrelated to the modern English ‘hell‘ and ‘she bores us…’, I hope…) you can well understand their link to Hekate, for there is something distinctly of the night about their enchanting blooms.

The first time I wrote about them, beguiled by their serene, be-wimpled faces I likened them to nuns, (albeit the wilder variety of sister portrayed in ‘The Black Narcissus’ rather than the ‘hang on whilst I run up some more frocks from the curtains’ Julie Andrews type). I couldn’t have been more wrong about their habits though, for they hybridise at the drop of a hat and their modest garb hides prolific potential for popping progeny.

Fleshy and waxen as a virgin when they emerge, they chameleon right through to April, subtly shifting shape and shade as if in appreciation of Hekate herself. In youth, the (female) pistil is crowned by circlets of golden (male) stamens and anthers… but (and this may sound familiar…) the pistil is usually mature long before the bloke-y bits get their act together, making pollination by other plants more likely.


Soon after pollination – often, here, courtesy of those huge early bumble bees which look like they’ve put extra jumpers on – the carpals start to swell with ripening seed and the anthers – sorry boys – wither and drop off.  Shade-shifting steps up a gear too, the sepals beginning to green and desiccate, starting their journey towards crone-hood. And if you’re lucky, within months you’ll find fresh little hellebore seedlings circling the mother plant -even if you’ll have to wait another couple of years before the first flowers hint who the father may have been…

Be careful if you intend to dig them up though – for Pliny instructs us that when harvesting hellebores, you must first draw a circle around the plant with a sword, then pray to the east for permission and, finally, make sure that you’re not being watched by an eagle – for if you are, you will surely die within the year. And if you find you’re being watched by a vulture, your prognosis is probably even worse…

Of bigamy, adultery and regurgitation…

My hellebores are staying put though – and it’s dunnocks I’ve been watching for recently, trying to work out just how many – and of what persuasion – are thinking about nesting in the garden this year.

Their name means ‘little brown bird’ and that really is all that’s to be said for them, visually. Drab as a darned sock, they scurry around the garden almost like mice… in fact if you’ve ever suspected you’ve seen a mouse but it turned out to be a bird, the chances are very high indeed that you’ve seen a dunnock. Their quiet nature and dowdiness of plumage however belie a hush-hush sex life fit for the tabloids.

Some dunnocks, it has to be said, form monogamous pairs. The majority however don’t… partly due to the fact that most years, males outnumber females. So, what does a girl do? Well, she finds herself a territory, builds a nest (yes, all on her own…) and then encourages a spot of bigamy… or even trigamy… It’s always the quiet ones, isn’t it? 

The males tolerate it for the chance to mate, between them establishing which is the alpha dunnock and so on… But the pecking order means little in practice… dunnock α will try to monopolise the female, but she in turn will make clandestine visits to dunnock β and even dunnock γ, knowing that more males with an interest in the clutch mean more food once there are hungry beaks to fill.

The males meanwhile mate with speed, vigour and determination, but beforehand peck at the female’s rump until she secretes some fluid and -hopefully – whatever her previous mate deposited there. Birds, you see. only have one ‘opening’ – from which everything has to come – termed the ‘cloaca‘ – Latin for ‘sewer’ – and my sincere apologies if you had a boiled egg for breakfast today… Just try not to think about the chicken and the egg question…


Occasionally it’ll happen the other way round and a particularly macho male will manage to hold two territories and two females enthralled – for a while anyway. More often than not though he’ll be unable to keep it up and eventually a second or third male will be needed. Both females then will mate with both – or all three – males – perhaps turning to Hekate to decide who to visit next? No wonder they don’t fly much…

And as if all this wasn’t enough for the poor male to tolerate, dunnock nests are particularly prone to being hijacked by cuckoos… Cuckoo-d but not cuckolded though, for although having an adulterous partner, a ‘cuckold’ is, by definition, a male who is unaware of what’s going on behind his back… or even in the wings. Someone who knows their partner to be an adulteress and yet puts up with it is termed, instead, a ‘wittol’… a willing cuckold.

‘Cuckold’ copulation is fairly common amongst birds – what makes dunnock society truly remarkable is the ‘wittol’ nature of the males; that the extra-pairing pairings are acknowledged, tolerated and even assimilated into the territorial unit and oh-how-extended family.

I also concluded something from watching robins yesterday… well one robin in fact, but I’m willing to bet others do it too. I remember getting really excited a couple of years ago, the first time I noticed him ‘sick up’ what I took at the time to be a small stone before tucking into a meal of worms (little things, they say; I still have my ‘robin stone’ in my purse…) Since, though, I’ve seen the same behaviour repeated on several occasions and have realised that it’s usually a large seed or grain that he’s regurgitating. And I’ve also noticed that you can often predict his penultimate worm by an evacuation from his cloaca…

My theory then (which is mine) is that he is ‘sick at both ends’ to absolutely maximise the quantity of highly nutritional mealworms he can cram in. Yes he’s previously found a seed to eat but something tells him that mealworms will be more useful energy wise, so he swaps…

The record, for stuffed robin, incidentally, is seventeen in a sitting.


As a theory, it is, I like to think, one up on my previous interpretation of ‘aw, he’s given me a present‘, if not quite logical enough to get me on to the quadrivium just yet.

I came back from the garden though clutching my thought with pride… It’s not every day that I manage to put two and pooh together to make four…

Of Bride…

And then I headed off to mark Gwyl Ffraed with a visit to the church of St Bridget in the hamlet of St Bride’s, overlooking St Bride’s Bay – well I couldn’t leave one of the sisters out, could I?

Although only 20 miles away, I’d never visited St Bridget’s before; weekends are often full, the call of the garden insistent and many treasures lie closer to home. Hopes accompanied me then; that it would be open, that it should be special, and that I would find something of Bride within.

My first sight – of a modern ornamental gate now barring the entrance – answered two of my questions… yes, here were the flames of Bridget – but it appeared further exploration would be impossible.


The portcullis however was pushable…

I love doors, especially old ones. I love the weightiness of their swing, the determined metal of their fixtures and the echoes of other hands turned in their wood. Most of all though I love the anticipation of opening a new old door…


Inside delighted; imagine finding a deserted church, which you think to be locked… only to discover a lighted candle burning within. And it wasn’t the only candle there either; they’re throughout the church, even the pew ends braced with triple stems. I trust no-one will mind my using Photoshop technology to light them here… well it is Candlemas after all…


And Bride was everywhere there – in the flames, in a small statue, in a ‘Cros Naomh Bhride’ and in a banner of flame; her parishioners, it would seem, certainly remember their dedication.

It was outside that I felt her though, in the fire of the sunset over her bay and a few pebbles I know she won’t mind my taking home.

And I hope the Cailleach feels similarly…




‘The Encyclopaedia of the Celts’ – a handy online resource


‘The Fires of Bride’ by Ellen Galford – one of my favourite ‘fun’ reads -‘used’ available from 25p!


More about Imbolc


How to make a St Bride’s Cross – and Jude even crosser… Looks very simple BUT… Ikea fans should love it!


Lots more about dunnocks!

~ by Jude on February 2, 2008.

2 Responses to “Of February Fecund…”

  1. For more about Hellebores:


  2. […] Judeness: February Fecund Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Halloween Inspiration 1: ‘I’m Goin’ Off The Rails On The Broomstick T… […]

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